Islanders have expressed concerns about the Ocracoke horses

The Ocracoke ponies. Photo: C. Leinbach

By Connie Leinbach

A meeting with the Ocracoke Community on the future of the Ocracoke pony herd showed that islanders care about the herd and want to see it maintained.

Cape Hatteras National Seashore staff are studying the situation and gave a preliminary report at a meeting on Nov. 29 at the Community Center to about 30.

The National Park Service has cared for horses since 1959 when after NC. 12 paved, horses must be corralled to stay safe.

That’s good for the crowd but a nuisance for the park service.

National parks are built to save native species, and horses are not native, said Elaine Leslie, a retired wildlife biologist with the park service.

Before his speech, Dr. Kent Redford, a retired ecologist, explains that historical data shows that horses actually evolved on the North American continent.

They then migrated to Asia and Europe, but they became extinct in the North American continent 8,000 to 10,000 years ago.

Europeans, who domesticated horses, brought them back to America in 1493.

A persistent myth is that they swam ashore from Spanish galleon wrecks, but Redford said there is no definitive evidence of where they came from.

Genetically, the wild horses along the East Coast are a hodge podge, and they are interlopers.

No agency says the horses are indigenous, Leslie said. “They are considered exotic wild.

The Ocracokes herd of 11 is unique among those on the Outer Banks because they are well fed and cared for, he said.

Dr. Susan Sutska, a wildlife biologist at Cape Lookout National Seashore, explained that the Shackleford Banks horses in the park roam.

He just watched them but noted that he was worried about sea level rise and whether the herd would survive and the intrusion of salt water into the ground water.

While the government does not care for these horses, they are allowed by special legislation that allows them to be there, unlike the Ocracoke horses. Also, The Foundation for Shackleford Horses Inc., a nonprofit entity, is a partner agency tasked with preserving and protecting the herd.

Meaghan Johnson discusses a management plan for the Ocracoke pony herd. Photo: C. Leinbach

Leslie explained that sea level rise is a growing concern for the Ocracoke herd because a large portion of the north end of the 15-acre pen is underwater.

Their place is shrinking, he said.

There is some higher ground in the penned area, said Meaghan Johnson, chief of resource management and science, and they will begin preparing it in January so the horses have access to it.

He said the water level rises 5.32 millimeters (.21 inches) per year and is projected to rise 1.75 feet in the next 100 years.

A one-foot rise in sea level is scary for an area that’s only one to two feet above sea level, Johnson said. By 2100, a solid meter (3.3 feet) rise and salt water intrusion is a concern.

Leslie focused on a project with the Ute Indians near Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado where wild horses were adopted.

Is that what Ocracoke can do? Can Ocracoke get a partner organization and enact legislation like Cape Lookout?

Johnson indicated a timeline that the final plan could be expected in the summer or fall of 2025.

Four females can breed, an islander pointed out.

Neglecting one of our cultural resources is foolish, said islander Rita Thiel. Horses are on this island just like people. It’s not fair for the park service to come in and say these horses have to go. We must fight to save them.

We care about the horses, said David Hallac, superintendent of the National Parks of Eastern North Carolina. There needs to be a thoughtful discussion.

Johnson said another public discussion of preliminary alternatives will be held in the winter or next spring with a management plan prepared by the summer or fall of next year.

Public review of the plan will be held in the winter/spring of 2025, followed by finalization.

The Ocracoke Civic & Business Association is collecting comments and ideas on the future of the Ocracoke pony herd. If you wish to present your comments to the park service anonymously, please indicate that in your email. Email your comments by January 8

The next OCBA meeting is at 6pm on January 16th at the Community Center.

The north end of the pony pasture on December 18 after the December 17 storm showed high water. Photo: C. Leinbach

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